IS THE word “peace’’ disappearing from our national conversation? Armies of talking heads, bloggers, and op-ed opinionators assault us daily on every subject . . . but rarely on peace. When was the last time we heard a national leader of either party, especially one running for president, put the goal of peace at the center of a political platform or place it among our highest national aspirations?
Remarkably, the goal of peace does not appear prominently on the websites of any of the Republicans running for president. Nor is it a central issue in the New Hampshire and Iowa campaigns. To his credit, President Obama has spoken about peace during his time in office - but used the bulk of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to explain why force is sometimes necessary.
Earlier presidents spoke memorably of the elusive dream of peace. Abraham Lincoln culminated his stirring second inaugural speech with his “Prayer for Peace.’’ Franklin Roosevelt affirmed the goal of a just and lasting peace as a focal point of his fourth inaugural in 1945. Richard Nixon pledged he would bring “peace with honor’’ during Vietnam, and George H.W. Bush called for a “democratic peace’’ following the end of the Cold War.
In perhaps the most eloquent evocation of peace by an American president, John F. Kennedy described it this way to students at American University in 1963: “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children . . . not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.’’
Why are we so hesitant to place peace on such a high mantle?
We live in a strikingly martial time in American history. During the last 16 years, we have fought four wars - Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan - and suffered the shock of the 9/11 attacks and seemingly endless conflict with global terrorist groups. Unlike previous generations of Americans, we live with a nightmare scenario: the possibility that depraved terrorists might unleash nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in our cities.
Yet not even the prospect of a nuclear 9/11 fully explains why peace is so absent in our public discussions. After all, Americans lived through much bloodier times - the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Earlier American leaders summoned bursts of idealism and self-confidence after harrowing conflicts and declared peace possible even after witnessing the very worst of human nature.
Contrast FDR and Truman’s sheer optimism in launching the United Nations and Marshall Plan after World War II with the principal monuments we have built since 9/11: the Department of Homeland Security and its legions of security personnel at airports. We now deploy the words “defense,’’ “protect,’’ and “security’’ to illustrate the national purpose. Is this sufficient? Peace is often unattainable, but has the 9/11 decade made us so fearful that we no longer believe it can be the guiding star that makes us a better nation?
Some candidates for president this year have signed all sorts of pledges to highlight what they are against - taxes, abortion, same-sex marriages. Visionary leaders emphasize what they are for, even if it is out of step with the tenor of the day. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked us to transcend the cynicism of the moment. The late Vaclav Havel described politics as the “art of the impossible.’’ Like many such leaders, they were sometimes derided as dreamers.
Wouldn’t it be something if a Republican or Democratic candidate emerged in 2012 to sign a pledge for peace? Those who believe this goal is too idealistic must consider the famously cool and rational Jack Kennedy: “Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - that mankind is doomed - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.’’
A half century later, here is a Christmas wish for peace on earth, in 2012 and beyond.
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.